Autism Awareness Day Special – Math Wizard Lionel Lee

Though Lionel Lee has Asperger’s Syndrome, he does well academically, enjoyed track and field, and completed National Service. Lionel shares his strengths and struggles on this World Autism Awareness Day.

Lionel Lee looks just like any other student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). He does well academically, enjoyed track and field in polytechnic, and had completed National Service (NS). You might have even seen him solve a Rubik’s Cube in under 20 seconds at the recent SPD Charity Show 2019. However, Lionel is living with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism that includes difficulties in communication and social relationships. Here’s more about Lionel, who is also a recipient of the Asia Pacific Breweries Scholarship for Persons with Disabilities last year.

I am Lionel

My name is Lionel and I’m 23 years old. I’m currently an undergraduate at the Nanyang Technological University studying mathematical sciences. I enjoy exercising, exploring nature, listening to music and speed solving Rubik’s Cubes. I’m also working on broadening my social network.

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when I was four. I think, feel and process thoughts differently from most people. As such, my intentions and behaviours are often misunderstood by others.

It has not been easy

I experienced developmental delays in speech and in pragmatic language use. I’m easily distracted and get overwhelmed by my surroundings, such as noise, people, texture and lighting. I take longer to respond to auditory information and find it challenging to finish tasks on time as I’m slower at planning and organising mental processes. I rely a lot on structure, repetition and routine and lose focus easily when there are too many changes.

I’m often misunderstood by others and viewed as weird especially when I interrupt others as I get excited over things of my interest. Others think that I am self-centered and lack courtesy. Since I’m very direct and blunt with my words, I may sometimes unknowingly offend others and that makes some people avoid me. I often feel left out and ignored in group conversations as I would be in my own thoughts and shut out what others say. Thus, it is challenging for me to make friends and deal with people.

Encouragement and support

I was fortunate to receive a lot of support and encouragement from teachers and allied educators during my school days. My allied educator from secondary school taught me social skills and helped me facilitate friendship groups in a very structured setting.

My family played a big part too, especially my mother, who has patiently guided me in social skills using plenty of visual aids.

My disability is an asset

I’m proud of my Asperger’s Syndrome. It has played a huge role in my passion for mathematics. Due to the structured nature of mathematics, I’m able to focus well and enjoy learning and thinking through it. I enjoy abstract and logical problem solving that involve numbers and patterns. I also have photographic memory for numbers and a great eye for details.

Lionel (left) solving a Rubik’s Cube at SPD Charity Show with Mediacorp artiste Chen Hanwei
Lionel (left) solving a Rubik’s Cube at SPD Charity Show 2019 with Mediacorp artiste Chen Hanwei

Hopes for the future

I am keen to step beyond my boundaries to engage the community in Asperger’s Syndrome awareness and advocacy sessions. I want to take every of life’s challenge that I face in my stride and do my best so as to inspire and uplift others. I aspire to work as a mathematics researcher, contributing to the development of 21st century mathematics, making full use of my strengths.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is not limited to just Asperger’s Syndrome. It refers to a broad range of conditions and different people with autism face different challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and non-verbal communication. Whereas Lionel is able to make good of his life, others who have more severe forms of autism require constant and lifelong care.

On this 12th World Autism Awareness Day, let us commit ourselves and promote the inclusion of people with autism. Our support can empower them to develop their potential to the fullest and be a part of mainstream society.